Tag Archives: Sara Harris

Town Hall Still Closed. Attorney Asks Why. Officials Respond.

In mid-March, the coronavirus swept through Westport. In just 48 hours nearly every institution — schools, stores, restaurants, the YMCA, the library, Town Hall — closed to the public.

Gradually — if partially — they’ve all reopened.

Except Town Hall.

Employees, residents, and the many folks who do business every day there have had to find new ways of operating.

That does not sit well with one “06880” reader. A real estate attorney, he used to be in and out of Town Hall nearly every day. Title searches, transactions, deeds — the daily work of home purchases and sales must go through the Town Clerk, Planning and Zoning, Building and Conservation Department offices.

For nearly 6 months, those offices have been shut.

On March 11, flanked by town officials, 1st Selectman Jim Marpe announced the latest COVID-19 news. The next day, Town Hall was shut.

“To record a $6 million sale, I have to make an appointment,” the attorney says. “But only certain times. You can’t do it at noon. That’s their lunch hour.

At the appointed time, he says, “they come outside. You give them the documents. They go inside, then come back out and hand you a receipt.”

Once, he says, he was told to put a notarized document in a drop box. It was quarantined for 24 hours. Then it got lost. “I’ve never heard of COVID being transmitted by paper,” he says.

He’s frustrated too to call with a question, and be told, “I’m working from home. I don’t have access to those files.”

It’s not only Westport, the attorney says. Weston, Norwalk, New Canaan, Darien — those Town Halls are closed too.

“It’s not right,” the attorney says. “With all the buying and selling going on now, there has to be a better way.”

I asked town officials to reply. Operations director Sara Harris says:

“While it may appear that Town Hall remains ‘closed,’ it has in fact never been closed. Town Hall staff members have been working in Town Hall every day since March 11, with services available to the public by appointment only.  Despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, we have maintained a citizen- centric approach to accessing all town services. Complaints regarding access to Town Hall have been minimal, and those concerns have been mostly due to misunderstandings of available services. We appreciate that residents have been patient and understanding during this challenging situation.

Sara Harris in her Town Hall office. A painting of the old Town Hall — now Jesup Hall restaurant — hangs behind her.

“Before COVID made its way to Westport, the staff in Town Hall were preparing and planning to offer all town services in case Town Hall needed to be closed to the public for health reasons.

“We devised an operational approach that allowed services to continue. That meant a mixture of staff members working from home (those who utilize cloud-based software for the majority of their work), some coming in on an alternating schedule to allow for social distancing, and some needing to be physically present to do their job.

“We are proud to say that all services continued to be offered to the public during COVID. These have been handled via telephone, email, or the use of the exterior drop box for paper document submission or payments. The Town Clerk and other departments have been hosting appointments for those services that require a face to face transaction, such as marriage certificates or notary.

“There are approximately 20 departments operating in Town Hall or Westport’s other facility buildings. Each have very distinct services and processes. As a result, some staff have worked in-person, remotely or on an alternating schedule.

“Additionally, as witnessed with the overall economy, we also struggle with staff who have childcare or other competing priorities that make it more difficult for some to be physically present. At various times, department office phones may not be answered, and callers are requested to leave voice messages. I have instructed all departments to either answer phones, respond to voice messages or forward them to the appropriate office within 24 hours.

“Regarding the comparison with private business such as stores, banks, gyms and restaurants: Town Hall has in fact been functioning similarly, and for a longer period of time.

Town Hall is closed to the public. However, employees are available by phone and email. (Photo/Lynn U. Miller)

“Phase II of our ‘reopening’ strategy is to allow additional appointments to take place in one of the larger conference rooms in Town Hall. We anticipate that this phase will begin later this month, along with some physical improvements to coincide with its implementation, including erecting partitions, removing carpet, etc. Public access to the building will still be somewhat limited.

“Phase III, which we expect in the spring, will include major renovations to allow increased control of traffic into Town Hall. These changes are currently under design and are expected to require a budgetary appropriation due to the complexities of the older building design, ADA compliance, layout, and security and egress concerns.

“With the completion of Phase III, we anticipate that the building can be reopened to members of the public wishing to conduct Town business. We do, however, intend to continue to restrict access to some sections of the building, both for security purposes and to uphold best public health practices.”

Town Clerk Patty Strauss adds:

“The Westport Town Clerk’s Office is open 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Phone calls are answered directly by a staff member, and in- person appointments are arranged to meet customers at the rear entrance of town hall to conduct business that requires in-person attention. Customers may call to make an appointment for deeds with conveyance, marriage licenses, certification of documents and many other types of transactions where face to face customer contact is necessary. These instructions are located on the town clerk’s web page.

(Photo/Larry Untermeyer)

“Westport land records are indexed back to the town’s incorporation date of 1835. The index to these records, and many other collections housed in the Town Clerk’s office, is available for searching online 24/7 FREE.

“Due to COVID, online viewing of land record documents is free of charge. Land record images are online back to 1974. Requests for older documents not imaged are emailed to the Town Clerk’s office. Orders are filled within 24 hours or same day delivery by scanning the document instead of post mailing, free of charge.

“The Town Clerk’s office has recorded 3,952 documents since March 11. No other complaints have been raised, so there is no reason to assume an adjustment to the current searching/recording procedures should be made. However, we are open to any suggestions to better service our customers and, at the same time, keeping customers and the staff safe.”

Refreshing New Look For Westport’s Website

So much of Westport sparkles.

Our transformed library. Compo Beach, from the playground and pavilion to the new South Beach walkway and grills. Longshore. Staples High School. The Saugatuck River. From Harbor Road to Beachside Avenue, Sherwood Mill Pond to Mahackeno, this is a truly remarkable town.

Our website, however, sucked.

Last updated in 2011 — after 2 previous equally grim versions — it was an ugly, bloated mess. Typography, layout, massive text and lack of photos  — all that wouldn’t have been so bad, if you could easily find what you were looking for.

But you could not.

Happily, as of today Westport’s official website is as crisp, clear and clean as so many of our other wonders.

The new website landing page.

Don’t believe me? Click here!

The new site was more than 2 years in the making. First Selectman Jim Marpe appointed a Website Redevelopment Steering Committee, including town staff and residents with expertise in technology, design, economic development and community interests.

They worked with Granicus, a company that specializes in website services for local governments.

Since the 2011 version debuted, users have migrated from desktops to mobile devices. The new website, all agreed, had to be mobile-friendly.

In addition, town operations director Sara Harris says, users needed quicker access to information.

“Popular services” and “I Want To…” provide quick access to information.

One key feature of the new design is a better search bar. The former “mega-menu” has been cleaned up and streamlined.

The committee used Google Analytics to rearrange the “How do I…?” section. The most popular requests — regarding, for example, beach passes, railroad parking permits, town maps, employment opportunities, open bids and bid results, and videos of town meetings — are given the most prominence.

A one-click “Popular Services” section makes it easier to pay taxes, register for programs, and get meeting agendas and minutes.

News is more prominently displayed on the home page.

There are more photos too, showing (of course) Westport at its best and most beautiful.

An “Economic Opportunity” page is aimed at anyone considering opening a business or relocating here. The goal, Harris says, is to show the town’s great quality of life, and support of business.

For the first time, Westport is marketing directly to businesses and employers.

The site now offers a 1-click link to subscribe to some (or all!) town notifications: emergency alerts, meeting information, news, you name it.

And — this is very, very cool — the Town Charter, plus every ordinance and regulation (including Planning & Zoning, the Conservation Commission, and Parks & Recreation Commission) are all available on one page.

As often happens, after the 2011 website went live certain sections lay dormant. Now, every department has a designated content manager. They’re trained on how to keep their own pages fresh and updated — and respond to users’ evolving needs.

The Parks & Recreation page is one of the most visited on the town’s website.

As part of the project, volunteers with marketing and design backgrounds — including graphic artist Miggs Burroughs; advertising creative director Rob Feakins; brand innovation principal and Westport Downtown Merchants Association president Randy Herbertson, and marketer Jamie Klein — worked to refresh the town’s “brand identity.”

Westport’s new website logo.

They eventually settled on a new logo. Designed by Samantha Cotton — who grew up in and now works here — it suggests open space, the movement of water or sails, and “open warmth and refreshing coolness.”

After a month of testing by the committee and town staffers, the new website went live yesterday.

Harris says, “We’re confident that users will be happy with the experience. We think it represents the town very well.”

She invites residents — and everyone else — to test-drive the new website. The URL is the same: www.westportct.gov.

What do you think? Click “Comments” here.

And/or email the town directly: webmaster@westportct.gov.

Of course, you can also do it from the site itself. Nearly every page has a “feedback” button.

It’s simple. It’s easy.

And that’s the whole idea behind the refreshing new website refresh.

A highlight of the new WestportCT.gov website is the Highlights page.

Meet Sara Harris: Town’s New Operations Director

The position of town operations director — vacant since Dewey Loselle resigned in November — has been filled.

Sara Harris moved into Town Hall earlier this month. She’s learning the ins and outs of local government, meeting elected and appointed officials, and discovering what makes Westport move.

The town of 25,000 is a big change from her previous job. Most recently, in New York City’s Office of Management and Budget, she focused on financial efficiency — for a city of 8 million.

Previously, as chief of staff for New York’s Department of Parks & Recreation Capital Division she oversaw an office of 400 people, responsible for the design and construction of all parks and parkland projects.

Sara Harris

And as a member of the city’s Franchise Concession Review Committee, Harris approved hundreds of agreements involving cable television, Central Park and a golf course.

Yet Westport is not new territory. Harris is a Connecticut native. As a student at Fordham University, where she majored in urban studies and political science, she often got off the train here. She’d meet her mother to shop, or head to Compo Beach.

“I always liked this town,” Harris says.

She loved her job in New York City — the work, her supervisors, the opportunity it provided for professional growth — but she did not want to live there forever.

When she saw Westport’s position posted in January, she says, “I had to apply.”

Her role here, Harris explains, is “to be the person to step back, look at strengths and weaknesses in how things are done, and suggest improvements.” Coming from the outside, she says, “I can notice things that others may not.”

She’ll look at performance measures, seeking greater efficiencies. One example is consolidating municipal operations with those of the Board of Education. Another is joining with surrounding towns like Fairfield, Norwalk, Stamford and Greenwich, searching for economic opportunities.

Harris’ goals are to “do good, and make improvements for the greater good.”

Sara Harris in her new Town Hall office. A painting of the old Town Hall — now Jesup Hall restaurant — hangs behind her.

“I’m in a new environment,” she notes. “I’m going to have to understand the history, culture and codes of a new place.”

But, Harris adds, “That’s also a plus. As I get to know people and find my place, I can make a good impact.”

She describes her style as “accommodating and understanding. I try to see where people come from, and figure out the legal and policy reasons why they do what they do. I’m patient.”

In New York’s bureaucracy, she was “one person among many. Here, I’m ready and trained to look at details, and be able to apply them on a more macro level.”

And, Harris — who earned a master’s urban policy analysis and management from New  School University —  says, “there really are a lot of similarities among all governments,” whether big city or small town.

She has moved from New York to another small town: Monroe. There, she and her husband spend most of their time with their kids: a 4-year-old and 2-month-old.

“They’re my happiness,” Harris says.